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NEW YORK/LONDON/SHENZHEN (Reuters) - There is no trace of Shenzhen Lanhao Days Electronic Technology Co Ltd at its listed address in the beige and pink-tiled "Fragrant Villa" apartment complex in this southern Chinese city. The building's managers say they’ve never heard of it.
But a Western intelligence report reviewed by Reuters says Shenzhen Lanhao is one of several companies in China that receives money from Iran through a Chinese bank. Such transfers help to finance international operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' elite Quds Force, the report said.
The Quds provides arms, aid and training for pro-Iranian militant groups in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq. They have also armed and trained government forces in Syria's civil war in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, U.S. and European officials say.
Washington designated the Quds a supporter of terrorism in 2007. The European Union sanctioned them in 2011.
The report said that the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) holds accounts with the Bank of Kunlun Co Ltd, a China National Petroleum Corp unit. Quds-controlled Iranian companies, including one called Bamdad Capital Development Co, initiate transfers from these accounts to either Chinese entities directly controlled by the Quds or to Chinese entities owed money by the Quds, such as Shenzhen Lanhao.
"The money transfers from accounts held by the CBI with Bank Kunlun are initiated by the Quds Force and transferred to Chinese companies connected to the Quds Force in order to meet its financial needs," the seven-page report said. Reuters could not independently verify the claims in the report.
The suspected movement of Iranian funds linked to the Quds Force through a Chinese bank and Chinese companies is a reminder of the difficulty of enforcing sanctions on Iran at a time when the United States and other world powers hope to clinch a nuclear deal with Tehran by Nov. 24.
The U.S. Treasury sanctioned Kunlun in 2012 for conducting business with Iran and transferring money to an entity linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, but there was no mention then of any link to the Quds.
Once the money is transferred from Kunlun to other entities, the intelligence report said, the Quds can use it for acquisitions in China and to finance all sorts of covert activity in other countries. The report does not say how specific funds moving out of the CBI's accounts at Kunlun would be used by the Quds.
The report does not suggest that either the Chinese government or Bank of Kunlun were aware of the possibility that there could be a Quds Force connection to Kunlun's transactions.
But the report's assertions underline Tehran's complex and economically close relationship with Beijing: Iran is China's third-largest crude oil supplier, making China the Islamic Republic's biggest oil client.
The exact amount of money the Quds could have received from the Kunlun channel is unclear. But the sums flowing from the Iranian central bank to Kunlun over the past year have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the report said.
As Western sanctions tightened on Iran in 2012, Beijing picked Kunlun as its main bank to process billions of dollars in oil payments to Iran, shielding other banks from penalties. Kunlun had assets of 246.5 billion yuan ($40 billion) at the end of 2013, according to its annual report.
The U.S. Treasury's 2012 sanctions targeted money Iran was being paid for oil exports, including $22 billion held at Kunlun. However, there was an easing in the restrictions on Iran’s access to the money in November 2013 under a bilateral agreement with China, and as an interim nuclear deal was reached with six world powers in the same month.
The deal between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China gave Tehran access to several billion dollars in assets frozen at banks worldwide in exchange for assurances it would curtail a nuclear program that Western powers suspect will give it the ability to build nuclear weapons.
Negotiators gather in Vienna this week to try to reach a comprehensive deal that would prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb while eventually lifting sanctions that have badly hurt its economy. Hopes of a breakthrough are slim.
Officials at Kunlun did not respond to Reuters requests for comment, nor did CNPC, China's biggest oil and gas company.
The Chinese government said China's trade relations with Iran and other countries do not violate international laws.
"China maintains normal trade relations with relevant countries, including Iran," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement in response to queries from Reuters. "This does not violate any international law or (U.N.) Security Council resolution, and does not harm the interests of other countries or the international community."
Iran’s U.N. mission declined to comment.
Reuters viewed a payment transfer order from 2014 showing Bamdad requesting Iran's central bank transfer 1.45 million euros ($1.81 million) from an account at Kunlun to Shenzhen Lanhao for a payment "related to purchasing metals." While it was unclear how and whether the Quds Force received any funds through the transaction, it appeared to show the movement of funds as described in the report.
The report says other companies also initiate and receive transfers from the central bank's Kunlun accounts in this way.
Bamdad's website said it is engaged in pharmaceutical and base metals trading. Its Iranian telephone number was out of service. It lists an address in a non-existent Iranian province.
A person listed as a general manager in a directory for Shenzhen Lanhao said he does not work for the company when contacted by telephone.
The apartment complex listed as the business address for Shenzhen Lanhao in Shenzhen's western suburbs is occupied by a family. They told a Reuters reporter they hadn't heard of the company, nor of its general manager.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Fayen Wong and Chen Aizhu in Beijing, and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara. Editing by Jason Szep and Martin Howell